The Forbidden City

The Hong Kong Palace Museum has received over 900,000 visitors since it opened its doors in July 2022. Its success undoubtedly comes from the ongoing fascination of the public with life in the Forbidden City and the lives and tastes of the Qing-dynasty emperors. A new rotation of artefacts is currently on show, including five grade-one national treasures, on display with nearly 600 other artefacts from the Palace Museum in Beijing. Thousands lived in the Forbidden City when it was imperial China’s centre of power and one of the world’s most extravagant palaces. The Palace was strictly off limits to all but the emperor, his family, and his servants. Made up of more than 90 architectural complexes, the complex comprised about 980 buildings and approximately 8,700 rooms.

The design of the Forbidden City reflected the absolute power and cosmic status of the emperor, the Son of Heaven. When the Yongle Emperor, architect of Beijing, planned his capital in 1405, he decreed that it should be laid out in accordance with his astrologers symbolic conception. All spaces and buildings corresponded to part of the human body – the main gates on the outer defensive walls represented the head, shoulders, hand and feet; the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen) the tissue enclosing the heart; and the imperial palace the viscera and intestines. The location of the palace itself was linked to the position of the Pole Star. The high vermillion palace walls that kept the emperor hidden further enhanced his mystique and glory.

From the early 15th century to the beginning of the 20th century, the halls and palaces of the Forbidden City had slowly filled with lot and tribute gifts from the many military campaigns, conquests, tribute and ambassadorial gifts lavished on the imperial family. These objects comprised jades, ivories, gold and bronze vessels and religious figures, porcelains, paintings, as well as embroidered fabrics and such specialised gifts and objects such as Emperor Qianlong’s collection of clocks and automatons. Each reigning emperor was also a patron of the arts and created work for thousands of skilled craftsmen.

One object in the show is a Ming-dynasty carved cinnabar lidded box decorated with cranes and a ‘longevity’ character. The Yongle Emperor of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) established the Imperial Lacquer Workshop, which produced carved lacquer wares until the end of the dynasty. The Yongle Emperor is well known as an active patron of the arts, which as a result flourished during his reign. The remarkable workmanship of imperial lacquer objects from this period can be attributed to the strict supervision by the Court on the Guoyuanchang (Orchard Workshop), which was set up by the Yuyongjian (Office of Imperial Use), following the re-establishment of Beijing as the imperial capital. Located outside the Forbidden City, the workshop was staffed with the most skilled craftsmen summoned from all over China,

The Qianlong Emperor (r 1736-1795) commented that these wares, which required much time and effort to produce, evidenced the fatuousness of last emperors of the former dynasty. Ironically, he revived imperial commissions of carved lacquer in 1739, ordering the Imperial Silk Manufactory in Suzhou to produce wares with designs referencing Ming-dynasty carved lacquer works. Qianlong was an enthusiastic patron of art and literature, and the imperial collection of books and paintings was greatly enlarged during his reign. The emperor himself was an accomplished calligrapher and poet, so many temple inscriptions around China contain examples of his works.

The latest 25 objects on show explore key moments in the busy and well-regulated life inside the Forbidden City during the 18th century. Highlights include five paintings from the 16-page Album of the Victorious Jinchuan Campaigns by the court painter Xu Yang (active circa 1750-1777). These famous Jinchaun Campaigns were created by a power struggle between Qing empire and the rebel forces based in Jinchuan county in the northwest of Sichuan province, and are considered part of Emperor Qianlong’s Ten Great Campaigns, which helped to unify China and improved the stature of the imperial court and its policies. However, in reality, these wars were waged at considerable expense and accelerated the worsening economics of the empire during the 18th century and ultimately i

directly helped bring about the fall of the empire.

The album is classified as a grade-one national treasure. One scene depicts, on 13 June 1776, the Qianlong Emperor greeting General Agui (1717-1797) and his army after their triumphant return from Jinchuan. In this scene, flags fly on the platform, and musicians play ceremonial music around them. The Qianlong Emperor enters the scene for the upcoming ceremony, in which he will make an offering to the military flags. Riding on horseback, he leads a group of civil and military officials with gifts to be bestowed on soldiers.

Another area of the exhibition features several royal portraits, including one of the Empress Dowager Ci’an (1837-1881) dressed in informal attire, from the Tongzhi period, dating circa 1872-72. Empress Dowager Ci’an did not make a lasting impression. Only two portraits of her in leisure costumes are in wider circulation today. In contrast, Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) had multiple portraits painted and loved having her photograph taken. A seal of the Tongzhi Emperor‘, the ‘Seal of Respecting Parents’, appears on this painting, along with his personally written inscription: ‘May the sun forever shine upon women’s residences’, a common wish for a mother’s birthday.

Another portrait is of the Qianlong Emperor, shown alongside a pale blue court robe embroidered with dragons and clouds from the same period. This type of court robe was the most formal ceremonial attire worn at the Qing imperial court. Although the Qing rulers were of Manchu origin, their costumes reflect multiple traditions. Its tight-fitting sleeves and ‘horse hoof’ cuffs are of Manchu and Mongolian designs, originally intended to facilitate ease of movement on horseback. The pleated lower part, dragon patterns, design of stylised waves and peaks, and the Twelve Emblems are Han Chinese imperial traditions.

The Forbidden City became the Palace Museum in 1925, one year after Puyi (1918-1997), the last emperor, went into exile and spans approximately 727,000 square metres, housing the largest collection of China’s imperial collections of paintings, ceramics, and decorative objects. Designated as one of that country’s most important protected cultural heritage sites in 1961 by China’s State Council, it became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.

Until 30 June, 2023, Hong Kong Palace Museum, Hong Kong,